2015 record: 4-8 (3-5 ACC)
Virginia was one of the three Coastal Division teams to get a program makeover with a new coach, and it was the Cavaliers who made the biggest splash. It was clear Miami and Virginia Tech were interested in Mark Richt and Justin Fuente, respectively, but it was a bit of a surprise when Virginia announced Bronco Mendenhall as its new coach. It energized a fan base that has seen the program sink to the bottom of the conference. BYU was an annual bowl team under Mendenhall, who won 10 games in five of his 11 seasons and never had a losing record with the Cougars. The last time UVa won 10 games, Mendenhall was a 23-year-old graduate assistant at Oregon State.
Three storylines to watch:
1. Is Kurt Benkert the answer?
There is not a program that has had less continuity at the sport’s most important position than Virginia. In the past 12 seasons, the Cavaliers have had a quarterback start the opening game in back-to-back seasons just once. Even in a sport with constant turnover, that mismanagement and incompetence is unthinkable. Over those 12 seasons, Virginia ranks 104th in win probability when the team is passing and last among Power 5 teams in passing touchdowns per attempt. Benkert has only been at the school a few months after transferring from East Carolina during the summer, but he was slated to start at ECU last season before an injury. Benkert will need to identify a go-to receiver, because Canaan Severin, the Cavaliers' bailout option the past two seasons, is in the NFL. There are concerns with depth along the offensive line, too.
2. The defense is adjusting to the 3-4 scheme.
Mendenhall is installing a new defensive blueprint for the Cavaliers, who were dead last in the ACC in points per game allowed in 2015. Micah Kiser is an exceptional linebacker the front seven can be built around, and the Cavaliers have experience next to him in Zach Bradshaw. The front seven can’t afford too many injuries, because it's not the most experienced group. It’ll be interesting to see how the defensive line adjusts to a three-man front, too. At 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, Donte Wilkins is stout enough to play nose tackle. In the new defense, former five-star lineman Andrew Brown shifts to end. If the Cavaliers defense is going to improve, it will need him to finally show signs of that blue-chip talent. He’s rarely seen the field his first two seasons, but moving to 3-4 defensive end, a position for which he might be more natural at 285 pounds, could spark a breakout season.
3. Can Virginia get to four conference wins?
Four ACC victories should guarantee the Cavaliers return to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Virginia has not done itself any favors in nonconference scheduling recently, and in 2016 the Cavaliers travel to Oregon and UConn on back-to-back weekends. The conference schedule actually provides a little bit of help, however. The four toughest games all come in Charlottesville, as Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Louisville visit UVa on consecutive October weekends, and Miami visits Nov. 12. While the Cardinals should be very strong, the Cavaliers also get Wake Forest from the Atlantic Division. Steal one of those games at home, and the Cavs have a good chance at a 4-4 record in the ACC and six wins overall. Otherwise, they need to win three nonconference games, which they have not done since 2011.